Sisters’ work over century in town recalled in exhibition

Sister Kevin McGrath, first Superior in the Convent in Dungannon and first principal in the Primary School. INTT1612-066X
Sister Kevin McGrath, first Superior in the Convent in Dungannon and first principal in the Primary School. INTT1612-066X

MEMBERS of the public were given a unique opportunity to look back at the history of the Sisters of Mercy in Dungannon at the weekend, through a special exhibition detailing their wide and varied work within the community for more than a century.

The Sisters will be moving from their present home at the Convent on Northland Row, to smaller accommodation within the next few weeks, but have stressed that they are not leaving the town and will continue to answer requests for prayers and, to the best of their ability, help those in need.

The Sisters of Mercy came to Dungannon from Dundalk in 1894, at the invitation of the Right Reverend Monsignor Dean Byrne P.P. V.G.

They took charge of the newly erected primary school, which Dean Byrne had prepared for them, beside the Convent.

Seeing the need for post primary education, they set aside a small room to facilitate those who wished to continue their education after the age of 14.

First Superior and Principal of the Primary School was Sister M Kevin McGrath, and she was assisted by Sisters Gabriel Clarke, Claver McGivern, Benignus Farrell, Josephine Carey and Borgia O’Beirne.

Cardinal Logue celebrated the first Mass in the Convent Chapel on July 16, 1894.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, St Patrick’s Academy was built on a site procured by Dean Byrne on the Killyman Road, below the parish Church.

The Sisters, their staff and post primary pupils, moved from the Convent school to this new building, which was to be the home of secondary school pupils, boys and girls, for almost 75 years.

From very humble beginnings the school increased in numbers, and pupils of St Patrick’s Academy are found in many parts of the world.

In the sixties temporary classrooms were erected to cope with the increasing enrolment.

This was not a very satisfactory arrangement, so it was decided to negotiate with the Department of Education to procure permission and a grant for a new building.

In due time approval was given, and a site secured on the Killymeal Road.

This building, also named St Patrick’s Academy, was opened in September 1975, and since then hundreds of pupils have enjoyed, and are enjoying, the most up-to-date facilities and excellent accommodation.

Many people will remember the Sisters with great affection and many are grateful for their generosity and kindness over the past century and more.

In addition to the life of the town in terms of religion and education, the Sisters worked hard to revive the Irish language and instil a love of music within the community, and also engaged in various other works of mercy in keeping with the traditions of their Order.

Many callers to the Convent over the years sought not only material aid but spiritual help as well. Those who were unable to come to the Convent were visited in their homes or in hospital by the Sisters who made the journeys on foot, traditionally walking in twos.

The “walking nuns”, as they became known, were a familiar sight for many years on the streets of Dungannon, especially at weekends.

They visited and helped the poor, the sick and the bereaved, and their prayers were a source of consolation to all.

Today, the Sisters continue to carry out their traditional works of mercy, visiting the sick and the needy throughout the length and breadth of the parish and in neighbouring parishes.

They are also frequent visitors to the local hospitals and nursing homes, and have been involved in other organisations including the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, the Children of Mary, the Youth Club and the St Vincent de Paul Society.

In 1986, the Sisters of Mercy of the Armagh Diocese opened a missionary foundation in Lagos, Nigeria, and since 1990/91, Sr Deirdre McKenna and Sr M Catherine Hagan have been working on that mission.

Over the past 100 years and more, the Convent, however, was primarily a house of Prayer, and this was highlighted by Cardinal Cathal Daly who, in his homily at the Centenary Celebrations in 1994, said:

“More than anything else the Convent has been a house of prayer. All the intentions and petitions brought to the Sisters have been carried before the Lord in their prayer. Not a day has passed since July 1894 but the Sisters have gathered in their Chapel for Mass and Community prayer morning, evening and night, and for individual prayer throughout the day.”

On Saturday past, 10 o’clock Mass was offered up for the intentions of the Sisters and, afterwards, an open invitation was extended to visit the Convent and view a media presentation of some of the beautiful windows and artefacts in the building.

Visitors were also able to view the exhibition which outlined the work of the Sisters in the town.

In the next few weeks, Sister Ann will be going to live in Lurgan and Sisters Anthony, Philomena and Marion will be moving to the Killymeal Road to the house previously occupied by Fr Faul and Monsignor McEntegart.

The Sisters have extended their thanks to the clergy and laity who have given them so much support for well over 100 years, and to thank the men and women who worked for them in and around the Convent, paying tribute to the generosity of the people of Dungannon and further afield.